Sigmund Freud, through the time spent with his subjects over the years, became convinced that – “The individual does actually carry on a double existence: one designed to serve its own purposes and another as a link in a chain, in which he serves against, or at any rate without, any volition of its own.” So, the next time when you use the expression – I wasn’t myself – stop and think about it for a second. Maybe its not just a way of saying that you lost focus or control, maybe it actually wasn’t you or what you would call your dominant personality. Maybe it was another you…
Trust M. Night Shyamalan to take this tiny seed as a concept and run with it to magnify it into something out of your wildest nightmares. The narrative begins with the abduction of three teenage girls Claire, Marcia and Casey by a man who we would come to know as “Dennis”. As he sprays their faces with some form of aerated chloroform, we catch a glimpse of Dennis’ psychotic neo-nazi visage through Casey’s perspective. You feel this deep sense of foreboding just through this 2-minute shot, before everything fades out to black. The girls wake up to find themselves in a room without windows. While Claire and Marcia are visibly shaken, frantically trying to devise an escape plan, Casey seems composed as she wracks her brains to figure out what seems like a simple kidnapping. This is when the story starts to creep into the territory of odd. In a different scene, we see Dennis talking to his psychiatrist but referring to himself as “Barry”. As compared to his obsessive compulsive personality as a kidnapper, Barry seems to be a well-functioning, soft spoken individual who has an interest in fashion. However something feels off as he keeps referring to himself as “we” throughout their meeting. This is when you get the first real sense of the multiple personalities that reside within him.
The narrative is interspersed with exploratory scenes in which Barry’s doctor talks to her colleagues about “Barry”‘s or “Dennis”‘ case. She doesn’t see him as a mental patient but rather as a man with a gift of sorts. The prospect of multiple independent personalities residing within one person, each having its own IQ, mood, behaviour and language fascinates her. Although this is unlike any case of Dissociative Identity Disorder she had ever seen, she asserts that maybe the brain of this person had tapped into an uncharted territory of the subconscious mind. Characteristic to all his films, Shyamalan touches upon the subject of spirituality and God through this particular perspective of the Doctor as she proposes that maybe this dissociated mind of ours is what we know as the “supernatural”; which can also be translated to – God doesn’t exist outside of us. Instead, he/she is our own projection, our very own split personality which we create ourselves to protect us from any wrongdoing.
What might possibly be the most challenging act of James McAvoy’s career yet, is pulled of with astounding flair. McAvoy jumps from being a germaphobic middle-aged man to a prim, graceful woman to a 9 year-old boy in a matter of minutes as if changing TV channels. The keyword being ‘dissociative’ here, Shyamalan and McAvoy understand that each personality would need to be clearly distinguishable from the other without which the intended effect would not be realized. This is actually one of the most difficult things to master when as an audience our brains are still processing the previous character, which is already an act being played by the actor. The director here has to make sure that none of the personalities is allowed to become the main character in our minds and we start seeing him as a crowd of faceless heads wherein we have no idea which head will rise up and take control !
Anya Taylor Joy as Casey is given her own story arc where her abusive childhood helps her see through McAvoy’s personalities. However, in my opinion, the primary plot element is so overwhelming that this arc does not contribute much towards furthering the story. Having said that its commendable that Anya is working on such great projects so early in her career. (Her 2015 film – The Witch – is one of the best horror films I have come across.) There are also points in the first act where the narrative starts to slow down in pacing as the Doctor senses that there was something abnormal about Barry’s usual demeanor and tries to figure out which of the 23 classified personalities of his is taking the reins. But even in these moments, is an absolute treat to watch McAvoy’s multitude of expressions blending into one another with perfect precision.
Split has the essence of Shyamalan’s unique style of cinema. He is a master of manipulation as he plays with our psyche through the characters. You, helplessly, find yourself trying to predict who McAvoy would transform into, wracking your brains trying to gather cues from his face. Even though, the subject doesn’t make the story as compelling as some of my favourite films made by him such as The Village, Signs, Lady under the Water and most recently The Visit, it is satisfyingly unique in its performances. Interestingly, at the very end Shyamalan ties the film to another of his masterpieces where there were two towering characters – one of them broke down too easily while the other was almost indestructible (guess which?). Oh, by the way, the 24 (a new one is revealed at the end) personalities are also given a character-name. Creating an M. Night Universe are we ? Guess, we’ll just have to wait and see !
gobblpoint: McAvoy is so good in this film that he might just get Oscar nominations for all his personalities. Hah ! All jokes aside, this is one of the best acts I have seen in years. Definitely up there with Heath Ledger’s Joker as one of the greatest villains of all time !
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